This is an updated version of this post in which I try to explain the nuts-and-bolts of how to apply the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle to your fiction.
I've split this topic into several parts, which I'll post on subsequent weeks, because I think there's many levels of subtlety when it comes to 'showing' rather than 'telling'. I'll start with what I consider the most basic techniques and work my way up to the most sophisticated ones that I've managed to mash into my wee brain.
This first week, however, I'm going to talk a bit about what the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle of fiction writing actually is and why it's preferable to 'show' your readers a story rather than to 'tell' them.
To 'show' your readers the story means to force their imagination to engage.
When a story is vividly written, the reader's mind gets slurped right into it. They see images, they hear sounds, they smell scents and feel sensations. The reader also feels emotions. They empathize with the characters, and will laugh, cry and rage on those characters' behalves. Ideally, when reading, the reader is mostly unaware of their physical reality--including the fact they are reading words on a page--and intensely aware of the world of the book.
When a writer 'shows' the reader the story, that means they have manipulated the reader's imagination into picturing scenes, feeling sensations, etc.
When a writer 'tells' the reader the story, they inform the reader of all the same facts, but in such a way that the reader's imagination does not engage. Nothing comes to life inside the reader's head, even though the reader could still tell you what the plot of the book is.
Thus, the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle is actually a host of techniques writers use to provoke the reader's brain into viscerally imagining the story.
In the coming weeks, I'll go over five ways to 'Show, Don't Tell'. Before I get to the first of these nuts-and-bolts discussions, however, I want to note one thing:
Sometimes 'telling' the story is exactly the right thing to do.
Humans have been telling stories probably as long as we've been able to speak, and your basic folktales-around-the-campsite story is usually told. This is a very primal and natural way for human beings to communicate.
However, the best folktales-around-the-campsite stories also engage the listener's imagination, causing it to picture scenes vividly, and a good oral storyteller has a bag of tricks that novelists don't get to use, such as vocal intonation, facial expression, hand gestures, and personal charisma. This is why, in written form, it's best to 'show' rather than 'tell'. The words are doing all the grunt work.
There is one situation in written stories, however, where it's also a good idea to 'tell' rather than 'show'. That's when you need to impart information to the reader but there's no way to do it that won't be boring.
For example, if your detective needs to get to the crime scene, but absolutely nothing of interest happens--either in her surroundings or in her head--while she's on the way, then you can just tell the reader, 'She drove to the crime scene.' It isn't necessary to try to make the reader picture her hopping in her car, turning left twice, and muttering at the traffic.
Please come back next week to read about specific techniques you can use to 'Show, Don't Tell' in your writing. The techniques I'll cover are:
Preamble: Show, Don't Tell (Sept 14, 2009)
Technique 1: Dramatize the Scene (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 2: Avoid the 'To Be' Construction (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 3: Avoid Cliches, Choose Fresh Language (Sept 28, 2009)
Technique 4: Action, Not Words (Oct 5, 2009)
Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information (Oct 12, 2009)